November 17, 2021 by Stephanie Parell. From Croakey Health Media.

Stephanie Parnell discusses how children are digital natives. In fact, they have access and know how to use social media platforms, without the need of adult supervision. At the same time, they have no control as to being monitored and protected from possible harmful advertising messages.

It is of common knowledge that social media offer unique marketing opportunities nowadays. Along with this, the use of social media is indeed an active process, that bring people, incuding children, to engage with it by liking, commenting, sharing content, co-creating it,  with little incentive required to do so.

What is problematic is the “dark” market, as the author of the articles discusses. That is, what is largely invisible and beyond the scrutiny of the public or regulators. Actually, social media platforms are the perfect arena for companies to target and influence vulnerable young people with their messages, products and images.  

Even more problematic is when the message spread that arrives to young people relates to alcohol or other health harming products.

The evidence

A study was conducted and found that several leading alcohol brands are not consistently using available age-restriction controls, known as ‘age-gating’, on their Facebook and Instagram accounts.

They identified the brands owned by the top three beer, wine and spirit companies by market share in Australia, and located their official Facebook and Instagram accounts. International accounts were used when Australia-specific accounts did not exist.

Their surveillance of those brands showed that 5% of the Facebook and 28 % of the Instagram accounts did not have age-gating activated during the study period, meaning children could access, be exposed to, and share the promotion of alcohol products, brands and pro-drinking messages.

The researchers then lodged a complaint to the Alcohol Beverage Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme, the alcohol industry’s self-regulatory system for alcohol marketing in Australia.

In its determination, the Panel noted it was the largest single complaint ever considered in the Scheme’s history and prompted the Panel to recommend further internal review of their research, including during the ABAC Scheme’s periodic review, due in the next 12 months.

However, although the complaint was upheld, the Panel admit the ABAC Scheme is not equipped and has no monitoring mechanisms to ensure that alcohol companies are using age-gating on digital platforms. Many companies admitted they too had no systems in place to ensure age-gating was activated on their social media accounts.

This case highlights yet another instance of industry self-regulation failing to adequately protect children from the harmful exposure and impacts of digital alcohol marketing. The voluntary requirement to use age-gating on social media is not enforced or sanctioned and effectively defers to an implicit reliance on alcohol companies ’doing the right thing’.

The author concludes: “Our children urgently need better protection than this”.


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